Nanoparticle safety raises questions

U.S. initiative focuses on health as well as economic impacts of nanotechnology.

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

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Figure 2. Polymer filled with glass fiber or mineral nanoparticles better resists heat aging at high temperatures. Source: BASF.

Figure 2. Polymer filled with glass fiber or mineral nanoparticles better resists heat aging at high temperatures. Source: BASF.

BASF treats risk assessment as a crucial aspect of its research. “Safety research parallel to the dynamic development of the nanosciences is essential for their sustainable use,” explained Rüdiger Iden, the company’s spokesman for nanotechnology. So, the company is involved in a number of German and wider European projects considering the safety of nanotechnologies.

Lack of guidance


The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), Washington, D.C., undoubtedly is pleased that EHS issues are so high on the NNI agenda. Launched in 2005 by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts, PEN is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible EHS implications of nanotechnology.

Last December PEN released the results of a survey of New England-based nanotechnology companies aimed at discovering how firms in almost every sector of the economy address the possible EHS impacts of new nanoscale materials and products. The survey indicated that as nanotech industrial and consumer applications enter the market, U.S. companies need more information and guidance from suppliers, trade associations, government regulatory bodies and others to effectively manage risks.

“Many smaller firms recognize the need to address risks proactively but few have the resources to do so. At present, the majority of survey participants expect to rely on suppliers to provide nanomaterial risk management information in the form of Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). But these do not always reflect the latest health and safety information, and regulatory or consensus guidance for these new materials is lacking,” noted John Lindberg of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Mass., the study’s principal investigator.

David Rejeski, director of PEN, expanded on this important problem: “The current MSDS for carbon nanotubes sold over the Internet treats them as graphite — the same material used in pencils — despite nanotubes bearing no more than a passing resemblance to this material. Clearly, companies are not being given the guidance they need. The findings from this study are consistent with other surveys of nanotech businesses in California, New York and around the world. Firms are flying somewhat blind into the future and need a clear set of rules, a sense of the emerging regulatory landscape and access to relevant research on risks in order to ensure both nanotechnology safety and profits.”

In an earlier (August) report, PEN also called for initiatives to tackle the low level of awareness generally among the U.S. public.

“Even though the number of nanotechnology-enabled consumer products — from dietary supplements to skin products to electronic devices — has more than doubled to over 500 products since 2006, the ‘needle’ on public awareness of nanotechology remains stuck at disappointingly low levels,” warned Rejeski.

“Efforts to inform the public have not kept pace with the growth of this new technology area. This increases the danger that the slightest bump — even a false alarm about safety or health [intoxication due to a bathroom sealant supposedly based on nanotechnology caused a scare in Germany (see, Ed.] — could undermine public confidence, engender consumer mistrust and, as a result, damage the future of nanotechnology before the most exciting applications are realized. If they do not effectively engage a broad swath of the public in steering the course of nanotechnology, government and industry risk squandering a tremendous opportunity,” he cautioned.

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